Is the “App Gap” the Next Achievement Gap?

What is too much screen time? An article in today’s nytimes tries to address some of the concerns, as well as point to the divide that some are saying is the next achievement gap.

I’m a huge proponent of technology, but if you visit my classroom, you may see me or my students using it as a tool from time to time. More often than not, we are usually more engaged in the physical world around us rather than the virtual one. Screen time is concern that many parents and teachers grapple with.

Like everything, technology has to be meaningful and purposeful, it needs to be used as a tool that helps with learning, and it has to be limited.

When thinking about how kids use technology, it should promote critical thinking (Do they know how to analyze their search results, or do they just trust the first thing that Bing or Google produce?). It should promote responsibility (Are they using it to learn?). It should also promote digital citizenry (Are they leaving a digital footprint that may help someone else?). Kids should be producing things more than consuming them. Students should always be asking more questions. Children should also be engaged by their curiosity.

When a child asks, “How do I change the font?” one should encourage them to explore. “If you were to design the program, how would you change the font?” is often how I respond, leaving them to experiment, “play,” and find out for themselves. There are often students who are more than eager to show others how to do things, and it’s really this kind of social interaction (in the real world) where great learning occurs.

There’s a huge difference in type of screen time such as TV, where children are passive compared with writing a final draft on a computer screen. Computers aren’t going away, and kids need to see how it can be used in ways to create and be curious. How we do this needs to be carefully thought through. As a teacher, when introducing a technology component, one has to ask: What skill is being lost (if any) when introducing a new tech tool into the classroom? What are the trade-offs?

There was a great article last week about the Waldorf School’s philosophy of “no tech.” My philosophy is that using technology is not an all-or-nothing endeavor. One needs to be thoughtful and deliberate about its use. If I thought an app could teach kids how to read, I’d be spending my time trying to create that app.

I have many more thoughts on this, but one thing I’m trying to do is not only teach my students how to evaluate the technology they use, but also to teach them how to turn it off.

A New Culture of Teaching

I recently finished a book called A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change by Doug Thomas and John Seely Brown. The book, was recommended by the independent schools Special Interest Group at the ISTE (International Society for Technology in Education) conference. It’s a fairly quick read that had several themes resonate with me.

As the title of the book suggests, the culture of learning is changing, and as teachers we have to think about teaching differently. Apple computers coined the term ‘Think Different.’ and over a decade later, teachers are starting to make those changes. Great teachers have always been those that teach kids to learn, but according to the authors, the context of in which learning takes place has changed due to technology. The authors use the ‘teach a man to fish’ phrase as an example of that shifting context: What if fishing is unsustainable and the supply of fish is depleted? What if the water’s polluted? We need to know how to ask those kinds of questions, grapple with them, share, collaborate, and try to come up with solutions.

Vinnie Vrotney, who hosted a book club twitter chat tonight of A New Culture of Learning has a great post on his blog reflecting about delving into blogs 5 years ago, and how five of his colleagues are now sharing their summer reflections via blogs.

I only began fooling around with twitter in February to try to follow a couple of colleagues and others attending the NAIS conference in D.C. I had no idea what hashtags were, or what @ signs meant. I had attended the conference the prior year, when I started this blog, and was eager to participate (albeit remotely), and was beginning to learn how twitter fit into all of this.

Did I take a class or read a manual about twitter? Nope. I’m still learning how to use it: I even failed tonight, forgetting to put #isedchat in one of my tweets. I also had to leave the chat early as I had other plans, but a transcript of the chat was posted afterwards. For those who want to reflect a little longer and deeper, each week, Vinnie Vrotney will post a prompt on the Independent School NING in order to continue the conversation asynchronously. The book talk will also include a synchronous web conference with one of the authors of the book: John Seely Brown.

What do some of those things in the previous paragraph mean? NING? #isedchat? I could explain in another post, or you could be resourceful and find out. I think one of my jobs as an educator is not only to inspire my students to be resourceful, but to encourage my colleagues to do the same. It’s a mindset.

This mindset is cultivated by learning through others, sharing, asking questions, knowing, making, playing, taking risks and learning to fail.

Some may wonder what kind of ‘deep learning’ can happen from an hour long chat where participants can only use 140 characters or less per tweet. Aren’t those just soundbites from like-minded people? Well remember, we did read a book, tonights tweets included polite counterpoints, and also led me to read an interesting blog post on Scientific America called, “The Educational Value of Creative Disobedience.” There will be further reflection each week on the book, a web conference with one of the authors, and one can read transcripts of interviews of the authors like one by Steve Denning from a Forbes column on leadership named ‘Rethink.’

I hope to post more thoughts on this book, but want to end with this: Vinnie Vrotney, the person I mentioned earlier who led the chat tonight is not just a random educator I follow, but an inspiring educator I’ve actually met face to face. That meeting wouldn’t likely have occurred if I didn’t have a twitter account.

Persistance to Mastery (Using Skateboarding as an Analogy for Learning)

I attended an incredible event at TEDxEastsidePrep today. The topic was: Evolution of Instruction: Inquiry, Innovation, Identity and it exceeded my expectations.  I tweeted a couple of nuggets I got from each presenter and I wonder if that will encourage teachers to take a risk with twitter as a learning tool.

There’s an overwhelming amount of great things to share, and perhaps I’ll write about all of it.  One speaker, Dr. Tae was off the charts. A physics professor and avid skateboarder, he talked about what has been a common theme at our school: Learning by making mistakes. He walked through a trick he wanted to learn by showing us a shortened video of his progression. He got it on his 58th try. That meant he FAILED 57 times. There was no physical incentive for this trick other than the accomplishment of the act itself. There were no letter grades (an F for his first attempt, maybe a C+ near the middle). He only had a clear goal, persistance, practice and hard work. How are our children learning? Are their learning tasks as relavent, engaging, and clear to them? Do they persist or do they give up easily? All extremely good questions to ask oneself and their students.

Here’s a video on Dr. Tae’s blog that gives you an idea of what he means when he says we need to build a new culture of teaching and learning. The end of the school year is upon us and it’s a fairly busy time, but I hope to share one nugget from all the speakers.

Are You A 21st Century Teacher?

This is a good list to keep teachers moving forward. I know I’ve got a lot of ground to cover. The list comes from the blog simplek12. It’s a little old (5 months), but I’m new to twitter, and someone I follow retweeted this, and it caught my eye. Trust me, I was very skeptical of twitter, but honestly the resources I’ve found via twitter in the two months since I began trying it out, have been extremely useful. I dabbled in myspace – useless. Facebook is really a social tool. Linked in just doesn’t work that well for me, but Twitter and blogging seem to work for my own professional growth. Anyway, you can find the list below with my comments in green.

“21 Signs You’re a 21st Century Teacher


Are you a 21st Century Teacher? Find out! PLUS if you can help me add to my list you may win a special $200 prize. Keep reading to find out how…

1. You require your students to use a variety of sources for their research projects…and they cite blogs, podcasts, and interviews they’ve conducted via Skype. Not there yet – remember I teach 2nd grade, yet this doesn’t mean this can’t be done.

2. Your students work on collaborative projects…with students in Australia. Also not there yet.

3. You give weekly class updates to parents…via your blog. Yes, and class website.

4. Your students participate in class…by tweeting their questions and comments. Again, I teach 2nd grade and am fairly new to this tool.

5. You ask your students to study and create reports on a controversial topic…and you grade their video submissions. Yes to the first statement, and I offer video submissions as an option, but haven’t received one yet. 

6. You prepare substitutes with detailed directions…via Podcasts. Cool idea, never thought of it.

7. You ask your students to do a character/historical person study…and they create mock social media profiles of their character. Not yet.

8. Your students create a study guide…working together on a group wiki. Boy am I feeling so last century.

9. You share lesson plans with your teacher friends…from around the globe. Just starting to do this. 

10. Your classroom budget is tight…but it doesn’t matter because there are so many free resources on the web you can use. Exactly.

11. You realize the importance of professional development…and you read blogs, join online communities, and tweet for self development. One of the main reasons I do it. 

12. You take your students on a field trip to the Great Wall of China…and never leave your classroom. The pyramids of Giza, King Tut’s Tomb, but Great Wall of China may come soon (one of my students chose it as part of her independent research project)

13. Your students share stories of their summer vacation…through an online photo repository. I don’t share photos of my students unless they’re behind a password protected page.

14. You visit the Louvre with your students…and don’t spend a dime. Did that with the Museé National Picasso in Paris before our visit to the Seattle Art Museum whem it’s collection was here. 

15. You teach your students not to be bullies…or cyberbullies. Definitely. One of the reasons I think kids should use tech early is so they can use it responsibly and respectfully. They need to learn how to use it as a tool, not a crutch, and they also need to learn to turn it off. 

16. You make your students turn in their cell phones before class starts…because you plan on using them in class. Not something of concern with second graders.

17. You require your students to summarize a recent chapter…and submit it to you via a text message. Pencil and paper still work for this one.

18. You showcase your students’ original work…to the world. No, but I put them on our class website.

19. You have your morning coffee…while checking your RSS feed. It’s an evening thing for me, so no coffee.

20. You are reading this. This must be a bonus.

21. You tweet this page, blog about it, “like” it, or email it to someone else…” Another bonus.

Well I’m only just over the halfway mark, but it’s already growth from last year.  There are some other experiments I’ve tried this year.

Using donated old iphones for dictionaries next to traditional ones.

Those same iphones as web browsers when the other computers are being used. And kids using them as cameras to document their work.

Some great learning apps on the ipad (attained with Scholastic points) and those donated iphones (I got 3 – most parents give their old ones to their kids when they upgrade, but why not ask).

Having kids turn in projects in as a powerpoint deck (and learning some tips about design so we don’t end up with death by powerpoint) – They taught themselves how to use ppt in one 45 minute session where they were asked to simply play, discover, click, and figure out on their own what each button did. 

Assigning Khan Academy as homework.

And finally, using social media to share, learn, and grow as a teacher. You have to start somewhere. It’s been useful for me. 

These Are a Few of My Favorite Tech Sites for Teachers

Someone once asked where I get some of my ideas. The answer is the web, but more specifically, from other educators who blog. It took a year of blogging before I used the time during this mid-winter break to explore twitter. I have to admit, it’s an incredibly great tool. I have a lot more to learn about it in order to build a meaningful pln. A lot of new technology requires one to be resourceful and teach themselves how to use it. There was no training in setting up this blog, creating my class website, and using tech in the classroom in meaningful ways. What it does take though is time. Time to explore, discover, play, and share. Some of the things I’ve learned about or learned how to do through videos on the web have all been through other educators. Educators eager to share their passions about making learning more engaging for kids. Here are some of my favorite blogs and websites regarding tech. There are others more focused on ed. news, but I’ll get to them another day.

International Society for Technology in Education


Free Technology For Teachers

Teach Paperless


iLearn Technology

The Apple



and of course all the teachers and parents I work with who willingly share and point out useful resources.

With tech and learning, I have a few concerns:

  • it has to be meaningful and meet the main objectives
  • it has to be engaging
  • so many of the cool web 2.0 sites area all startups and who knows when or if they’ll go out of business or be swallowed by a larger company.
  • it takes time to vet all these sites and ideas and figure out how best to use and integrate them in the classroom

Paper and pencil activities, creating and working with concrete models, and face to face discussions and interactions all remain valuable tools in learning, enhancing these with technology must be done so with care.

Which Came First: The Paper or the Computer?

For the young children we educate now, they arrived into this world where both existed at the same time. This “TED talk” below features Conrad Wolfram trying to change the paradigm of how math is taught. If you’re familiar with him, he’s the man behind the website Wolframalpha. It’s quite a fascinating website. If you’re a math nerd, or even a teacher wanting to make math relevant to kids, it’s a great website. Just type in any equation like “2+2″ without the quotation marks, or “2,5 torus knot” and see what you come up with. Then get crazy and try entering your birthday or an historical event.

For those of you who remember the quadratic equation, ask yourself when was the last time you used it. More importantly, if you do remember it, ask yourself, how, why, and when you would use it? I think I’m safe with 2nd grade math, even though it’s important to stretch kids in every possible way. For middle school teachers and beyond though, he poses a very good argument. One thing I certainly agree on is that we all need to support kids with estimation, reasonableness, and mental math strategies. It’s well worth the 18 minute video, especially if you’re interested in math ed. reform in this country. Alternately, with TED talks, you can click on a link to get the transcript, if that’s your prefered method of learning.

Here’s the blurb from TED about the following video titled, Teaching Kids Real Math with Computers.

From rockets to stock markets, many of humanity’s most thrilling creations are powered by math. So why do kids lose interest in it? Conrad Wolfram says the part of math we teach — calculation by hand — isn’t just tedious, it’s mostly irrelevant to real mathematics and the real world. He presents his radical idea: teaching kids math through computer programming.


21st Century Skills

In the book, 21st Century Skills: Learning for Life in Our Times, the authors highlight what our schools need to be teaching. I was quite cynical at first (but I am usually that way anyway) since the organization Partnership for 21st Century Skills gets a lot of its funding from major corporations, by the time I finished the book, I thought it was pretty balanced. As with Tony Wagner’s book, see previous post, most of these skills are not new. We all know that effective oral and written communication skills as well as critical thinking and problem solving are a given. Unlike some wild and wacky books, this one makes sense in that it does not trivialize the importance of the core curriculum. It’s how that curricula is learned that is important. The four main ideas are this:

1. Mastery of core subjects and 21st century themes. Core subjects include English, reading or language arts, world languages, arts, mathematics, economics, science, geography, history, government and civics.

Themes for the 21st Century such as Health Literacy, Environmental literacy, Global awareness should be woven through this core.

2. Learning and Innovation Skills

Learning and innovation skills are what separate students who are prepared for increasingly complex life and work environments in today’s world and those who are not. They include:

Creativity and Innovation Critical Thinking and Problem Solving Communication and Collaboration (not new skills in my mind)

3. Information, Media and Technology Skills

Today, we live in a technology and media-driven environment, marked by access to an abundance of information, rapid changes in technology tools and the ability to collaborate and make individual contributions on an unprecedented scale. Effective citizens and workers must be able to exhibit a range of functional and critical thinking skills, such as:

Information Literacy, Media Literacy, ICT (Information, Communications and Technology) Literacy

4. Life and Career Skills

Today’s life and work environments require far more than thinking skills and content knowledge.The ability to navigate the complex life and work environments in the globally competitive information age requires students to pay rigorous attention to developing adequate life and career skills, such as:

• Flexibility and Adaptability • Initiative and Self-Direction • Social and Cross-Cultural Skills • Productivity and Accountability • Leadership and Responsibility

For those who think that this is all additive and question where we find the time to teach all of this, the authors really stress integrating all 4 components.

Again, I feel lucky to work in a school where I feel we are already doing most of these skills. Our mission is a great outline for points 2 and 4. I think the core curriculum is strong at our school, but isn’t stated in our mission so we are free to find balance in that core. It’s point 3 that I think we could improve on tremendously in big ways. Part of my impetus for starting this blog was to make sure I was using the technology out there and making it meaningful and useful to me. How could I ever expect my students to do something I’m not familiar with. I’m hoping to blog more about technology and some of the things I’ve been discovering in my new pursuits.

I have a copy of the book, but you can visit the P21 site and download their framework.  Some organizations like the NCTE are framing their curriculum around these 4 big ideas.